The world of London’s phalluses is laced with fallacy. The claim that dog buggerer Eric Gill was forced to scale down Ariel’s penis on the front of the BBC’s flagship building is probably untrue. (Though it’s probably true he was a dog buggerer).
Another story in stone penis lore claims that Jacob Epstein’s controversial members on the front of the Strand’s British Medical Association building (now Zimbabwe House) were chiselled away, following an incident in which a gentleman was struck by one of them.
This whiffs of myth, so what’s the truth?
Even before they were revealed in 1908, Epstein’s 18 naked figures — male and female — stoked brouhaha. An anti-vice/joy group discovered one of the plaster casts, and orchestrated an unsuccessful campaign against the statues’ installation.
Not everyone took offence; Mr DS MacColl, keeper of the National Gallery, said it was only the “most prurient of sensation-mongers” who could take such offence. The medical press blamed an “outbreak of philistinism”.
And though many wanted the statues gone, the BMA stood fast, and the penises remained. For almost 30 years they brandished themselves to the millions who walked up and down the Strand. (To be honest, most people probably didn’t even clock them.)
Then, on 10 June 1937, there was an incident. A passer-by was struck by a falling piece from one of the statues. It’s documented here in the Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette:
It’s true then, someone WAS hit by a piece of one of the statues. But not the piece of the statue we might have expected. It was the statue’s ‘head’, and as much as we’d love that to be a euphemism, there’s no chance one of Epstein’s penises weighed 21 pounds.
The headline about the statue’s removal proved untrue — they’re still there now. But a quick glance in their direction shows them to be severely maimed.
When did this happen?
As this video from the Tate confirms, acid rain is partly to blame for the statues’ state. Even a few years after they were installed, parts were eroding. It’s likely this which contributed to the loosening of that rogue head.
Yet the mutilation is far more serious than that — whole heads, feet, limbs and penises are gone. The truth is, the building’s new owner — the Rhodesian High Commission, hated the statues. And they used the mishap as an excuse to obliterate them.
Charles Holden — the building’s architect — was personally called on to chisel away anything ‘at risk’ of coming loose. In no time, Epstein’s first public commission lay in ruins. He was never given the chance to fight his corner.
Ironically, some of the penises remain today: a finger (or member) to prudes everywhere, from the artist from beyond the grave.